Social Issues

the radical notion that children are people

I was in a conversation a few days ago that has stayed with me, and I think what I noticed is important. A few moms brought up how their children respond to church services, and as a part of that discussion, one mother mentioned that her son said “the music gave him a stomach ache.” Responses were along the lines of “well, no wonder, rock concerts in church aren’t very restful.” It seemed to me that they were chalking up this toddler’s “stomach ache” to a general distaste with evangelical worship services, but when I heard the phrase stomach ache, instant red flags went up for me.

As I shared with you a little while ago, I’ve had problems with anxiety for most of my life, starting from when I was fairly young. I didn’t know the word anxiety described what I felt; what I did know was that “worry” and “anxiety”– anything less than “rejoicing in the Lord always,” really– was a sin. Anyway, when I heard that this child used the word “stomach ache” to try to explain how he felt, I instantly connected with it: my anxiety usually starts with shaky, nervous flutterings before escalating into full-blown clammy skin, heart palpitations, and, lastly, nausea. I didn’t know how to communicate “heart palpitations” to my parents, though, so I almost always settled on “stomach ache” when I’d experienced a trigger for too long and ended up nauseated.

One of the things guaranteed to set off an episode? Live drums and heavy bass. Which are heavily featured in modern church worship services. I have always skipped the music portion for this reason. But, it took me twenty-five years to understand that the reason why I avoid loud rock/pop music like the plague is my anxiety. I knew a lot of different people didn’t enjoy concert-style worship, and I was happy my partner was willing to arrive late every Sunday because of that, but what I didn’t know is that “concert style music makes me feel like my rib cage is about to burst open and my heart explode” isn’t normal. Most people don’t want to lay down on the floor and cradle their head, or fantasize about shoving their head into a bucket of ice.

I suggested to the mom that it might be a good idea to ask her son other questions geared toward figuring out if he was experiencing other anxiety-related symptoms– like “does your chest hurt?” or “do you feel hot or cold?” or “does your neck hurt?”

What has stuck with me about this particular conversation is the reaction I got: it had never occurred to these moms to wonder if their kids might be struggling with anxiety– social anxiety or otherwise. These moms are wonderful, loving people. They adore their kids. They’re responsible parents.

And yet, “maybe he doesn’t like XYZ because he has anxiety” just wasn’t an option they’d considered.

This isn’t their fault. It’s our culture’s fault. A culture with two glaring problems:

1) Mental illness is stigmatized, ignored, reviled– and so are the people who have it.
2) Children are expected to be in the default state of “cheerful” at all times.

A little while ago I was able to meet up with one of my favorite bloggers, Libby Anne from Love Joy Feminism. She brought Sally and Bobby with her, and something that happened that day is seared into my brain. We were in a museum, and it was loud, and crowded, with people bumping into each other all day. Several of the exhibits were filled to the brim with bright colors, flashing lights, and a screen with a different video every few yards. To say that it was a “stimulating environment” would be an understatement.

At one point, Sally (who was five years old at the time) was starting to spin up– anyone could recognize that she was heading toward a meltdown. But, suddenly, the most amazing thing happened. Sally turned to her mother and said “I need to go sit down.” And she did. She found an alcove– one of those darkened rooms that play short documentaries– and sat down on one of the benches and put her head in her lap. I studied her, and she was obviously focusing on breathing slowly, on calming herself down.

I was … amazed. A five year old had figured out something about herself that I still struggle with. She realized that she’d become overstimulated, was getting tired and stressed, and she knew what to do to handle it. She knew it was the noise, the people, the press, the displays, and so she found an environment with the least amount of stimulation possible– somewhere dark and quiet. I stared at her with my mouth open, and turned toward Libby Anne and whispered “how in the world did you teach her that? I don’t know how to do this!”


One of the things I’ve learned from Libby Anne is the radical notion that children are people. I wish that wasn’t such a startling statement, but for our culture, it very much is. Our culture doesn’t recognize the full humanity of our children. In fact, in order to be a good, responsible parent, many people think success comes when children are utterly controlled. Every single second of their lives is managed by us– including their emotional lives. Meltdowns, crankiness, sadness, melancholy, moodiness, anger, frustration, irritability– these things are strictly not allowed in “well-behaved” children. Only spoiled little brats have “negative” emotions.

Except we don’t think the same thing of adults. Granted, none of  us enjoys it when our friends or co-workers are cranky, or irritated, or frustrated, but we make allowances for it because we understand what it’s like to “wake up on the wrong side of the bed.” However, children don’t get to be grumpy because things in their day have just been going wrong— not well-behaved children, at least.

This is exacerbated in Christian culture. While we might think “children are to be seen and not heard” is an archaic phrase, Christians still tend to operate by that, especially when it comes to the emotional spectrum. Children are to be joyful. Children are to be peaceful. Children are to be pleasant. Children are to be polite. When they are anything less than that, it’s a sign of a problem that needs to be corrected through whatever discipline method that parent subscribes to.

A “shy” child– who might actually struggle with social anxiety or are extremely introverted and have used up all their energy already? NOPE. NOT ALLOWED. We coax, we cajole– we might even command our children to ignore their own emotional health because we want to introduce them to someone they’ll never speak to again. A child that hates highly stimulating environments? Too bad. They are going into that Sunday school room with bright primary-color murals on every single wall and the teacher who shout-talks the entire time and they had better not be a “problem.” Could they have anxiety, or be highly sensitive? We’re not even going to ask that question.

We are given tons of education and information about a host of other things– we all know to look for signs of lice, or chicken pox. We know what to do to treat a cold, we understand the difference between the common head cold and what could be the flu.

But how many of us know what the symptoms of anxiety or depression are? The real ones, not the ones we see in movies? I believe that being able to recognize when our children might be struggling with anxiety or depression is just as necessary as knowing when they have the chicken pox. If we don’t see it– if all we see is a “spoiled brat” or a “problem child,” then we’ll never be able to get them treatment. I grew up not knowing how to manage my anxiety, so I’m having to learn all the tools and coping mechanisms now, as an adult. I have trouble recognizing when I’m about to over-stress myself, because that threshold is so invisible to me.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I believe it shouldn’t be this way.

Photo by Stefan Montagner
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  • Thank you so much for this post. It actually made me cry. I am a highly sensitive person and I have had to endure mocking and ridicule from family and my pastors family and others about how much I never talked. It was quite honestly humiliating and made me feel lower than everyone else. See I have always preferred to watch and listen. I talk only when I have something to say. I am very observant and not so talkative or outgoing. I read an article a while back about Voddie Bauchman’s beliefs about child rearing and discipline and whatnot. One thing that stuck out to me was how he laughed and joked about people telling their kid it was ok if they didn’t want to shake his hand. He adamantly stated that it was a sin and unacceptable to “disobey” the parent and hide behind them and not shake Voddie’s hand. It totally pissed me off because I experienced that before, especially with grown ups that I instinctively knew inside were making me very uncomfortable and I absolutely did not want to have to shake their hand or say hello. Why a person would force their child to do that just baffles me. I work with kids all day long 5 days a week and I can’t stand to think how pathetically I was treated. As if as a child I wasn’t human. My niece is someone who I am amazed at as well. She turns 5 soon and she is very, very good at telling you exactly why she is upset, angry, irritated, etc and what or who made her feel that way. It shocks me that she can do that. I can’t even do that.

  • Thank you fo this post. I get psychosomatic stomach aches, always have. And…. idk, it just broke my heart that those women didn’t know how that could be. My FIRST THOUGHT was, oh, that little boy must get nervous around loud music. I have close friends who are the same way.

    As someone who STILL has trouble telling psychosomatic pain from physical illness (the consequences can be VERY icky), bless Libby Anne.

    • Carry

      I’m late to the discussion, but I also have psychosomatic stomach aches. I didn’t even know what anxiety was till I left college and realized that worrying all the time is just not healthy.

      It starts young.

  • Too often if a child is that sensitive to loud noises, bright images and crowds they get labeled as ADD or ADHD and drugged when all they need is a quieter environment.

  • Thank you for this post. This is something my wife and I are trying to work on with our boys. We have one spirited child and one not, and helping them both is very different. It’s not easy, but what you say is so important: they are people! They need tools for themselves just as much as we do. And I agree that there is nothing wrong with having anxiety, we, as a culture, need to be more compassionate and empathetic to our children and to others children as well.

    Again, thank you so much for this!

  • Morgan Guyton

    Thank you so much for this. I know I need an attitude change in how I respond to my two sons. This is convicting in a good way.

  • I can really relate to this, though I don’t seem to have it as strongly as my daughter. We go to a really large church, and sometimes the worship is LOUD. I usually just sit it out if it’s too loud, or I go get coffee and come back at the end. I avoid most concerts like the plague. My daughter wears hearing aids, and her solution to the problem of the too-stimulating church service is to refuse to wear her hearing aids so she doesn’t have to hear it on full-blast. Something I sometimes wish I could do!

  • Lark

    Love this!!! Great post and it’s so true!
    It’s so true and I’m kinda unhappy that I have had to *learn* that kids have the right to behave like adults emotionally. They have the right to be their own person.
    Although I’m glad to be learning it before kids…
    Libby Anne’s blog has done AMAZING things for me. I love reading her posts about parenting because I’m trying to see how to enact parenting while still allowing your kids to be kids.

  • This is good. I’m a first grade teacher and it is SO HARD to know and care for each child as an individual. Like, I know in my head that they are little people with preferences and struggles and likes and strengths and talents but there are so many of them and we have to learn how to count by 2s. Such a tricky balance. Anyway, one of my students gets super overwhelmed in a loud classroom with a lot going on and he just can’t focus. Unfortunately, for the first half of the school year I was like, “Student! You have to focus! You can’t play. You have to pay attention and do your work!” Then, when that brilliant tactic didn’t work (surprise) I started pulling him aside, letting him work at my desk instead of at a table with five other students and pulling him out of a special to take a test instead of putting him under pressure to hurry up and finish so that we can move on to the next thing. Now it hurts my heart to see him with his hands over his ears because our classroom just gets loud – it’s full of 18 seven year olds! – and I want to provide for him what he needs but I also have to provide for the other 17 what they need and AH! There’s a reason why after eight years of working with other people’s children (often ten or more at a time) I believe that parenting will be a breeze because they (usually) come one at a time (Of course parenting is NOT a breeze – another thing I know in my head.) What a good reminder – children are people, too! I often look at my students and try to think what I was like in first grade. How did I feel about things? What do I remember from that time of my life? What will my students remember when they’re in their 20s? I could go on and on… perhaps you are inspiring a blog post out of me!

    In conclusion, thanks, as always, for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

    • Tamara

      My son is just like your student (also first grade!). He’s a highly sensitive kid compounded by ADHD. I don’t know if your school has learning aids or 504’s for kids with minor barriers to learning, but if they do, I would offer them to your student if you can. My son gets to wear noise canceling head phones when doing his work, which really helps. They also have a lap bean bag that he can put on his lap and weight is calming and helps keep him from fidgeting. My daughter had similar issues and she was allowed to go take a break in the reading corner whenever she needed to and when she got older, take a walk down the hallway to breathe and have some quiet. At the beginning of each year, we sit down with her teacher and the school counselor and her and brainstorm coping mechanisms together. She gets to participate in coming up with solutions which is so great!

  • I’m one of those moms who wouldn’t have a clue that a stomachache might be a symptom of anxiety…for the same reason I didn’t initially look at my son’s getting skinny, needing to drink water all the time, and constant bathroom breaks as symptoms of high blood sugar. I had never seen diabetes in action before, and similarly, I come from a family with almost no mental illness and thus am pretty unfamiliar with the symptoms. So hey, I just learned something new 🙂

    I’m almost the polar opposite of my nine-year-old son, personality-wise, and it’s something that has always been a challenge in parenting him. He doesn’t respond to situations like I do, and the dicipline methods that would have worked on me just make him double down and get irritated. I have to constantly tell myself, “He’s not YOU”, and approach the situation differently.

    And the only way I can do this is to remember that my son is his own person, and that’s a GOOD thing. Even if it means I don’t always understand him well.

  • TOTALLY. I was punished as a child if I acted shy in the slightest. I didn’t know what anxiety was, and was made to ignore it when I was anxious. Children are people. Really.

  • Alyson

    I am highly sensitive. My parents ordinarily would not have recognized this, but my mom and I get migraines easily, so she understood the need to get away from loud noise, crowds of people, and other stimuli.

    I sometimes wonder how much of the sensitivity comes from my personality, how much from being prone to migraines, and how much from growing up as a home-schooled, extremely isolated, only child.

    I had depression and anxiety as a teenager and perhaps younger. Adults often expect teenagers to be “moody” and “hormonal,” and don’t look closer.

    Also, I wish when I was a little kid, my parents had considered “Maybe she’s watches TV all the time because she’s lonely” instead of just getting rid of the TV.

  • Your last couple of paragraphs remind me of times in my childhood when I absolutely freaked out during Sunday school services. They had no way to deal with it other than shouting at me or telling me to shut up. Heck, until I read this, it hadn’t even occurred to me to think that my own behaviour at the time might have had a legitimate cause.

    We absolutely fail to see children as full humans. Almost everything I object to in our education system would be improved if we thought of children as individuals in their own right.

  • I’ve been reading your blog for about a year now, and I think this is my first time commenting.
    100% agree! I didn’t grow up in a fundamental Christian home, but I definitely had to bury my feelings as a child. I know my parents were overwhelmed with other things going on in their lives and my mom’s great at listening and helping me work through things now and did the best she could then, but those parts of my childhood still have an impact on my struggle identify and manage my anxiety.
    I have a 4 year old who is very sensitive and has a learning disability. We receive so much judgement from my in-laws who are fundamental Christians every time she “acts up”, because we don’t spank, punish or dish out “consequences.” The funny thing is… “acting up” usually means her just acting like a 4 year old! We’re just radical parents who respect our child as an equal in our home. We have the privilege to teach and guide to help her find her way, but we do it with sensitivity that she may get frustrated and overwhelmed and that’s ok! All of her feelings are accepted without judgement.

  • One of the benefits of parenting autistic children is that you don’t have a choice in figuring this stuff out. Sensory processing issues are very, very common features of autism, and so we’ve learned to recognise possible triggers, develop coping strategies, and perhaps most importantly, developed the language needed to talk about it.

    So I can say to my daughter ‘do we need to go and do a strategy?’, and she’ll both know what I mean and have strategies available to deal with the sensory overload that she’s dealing with.

    But because we HAVE to talk about it with our autistic children, then it means that we’re comfortable talking about it ourselves. So now I can recognize when I’m finding a social situation overwhelming, and I can figure out what steps I need to take myself to step out of it and find calm.

    And it also helps me interact with other people in our church. I can read the signs better – I can tell when a kid walks in already hyper-sensitized and triggering, or needs help transitioning from being on their own to being surrounded by people.

    One thing I’ve found myself doing almost subconsciously with kids in our church is getting down to their level. I’ll sit or kneel on the floor whenever I’m speaking to them. I think it’s because I’ve learned the importance of ‘joining’ in autism therapy – we can’t expect kids on the spectrum to start interacting with our world if we’re not willing to enter theirs. So we practice joining our kids’ games, entering their imaginative world, talking with them rather than at them. And I’m learning that if we get this right with kids on the spectrum, then our interactions with neurotypical children benefit as well.

    • Getting down on their level is so important. And it helps to be able to talk about things that they enjoy. I know more than I should about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Frozen, and Thomas, but I like talking to the kids on their level. It helps me be a good Sunday school teacher.

  • Leah

    I agree with so many things said, a majority even. But :/ part of the selfawareness that this little girl was taught can also be termed “self control”. She was taught to recognize what she was feeling and then how to act on that info…. She took control, she didn’t allow the emotions and feelings to control her. Kudos!! Not many adults can do that! There’s a difference in controlling a child and teaching them self control, and at some point the parent does need to have a measure of control.

  • Wendy K

    Amen. Have you encountered Elaine Aron’s work on sensory processing sensitivity (sometimes also called “highly sensitive persons?” Her writings have helped me understand so much about my childhood difficulties and current needs.

  • juulie

    I strongly recommend the book “The Difficult Child” by Stanley Turecki. That is where I learned to recognize this concept. Later a woman named Mary Sheedy Kurcinka wrote a book called “Raising Your Spirited Child”. It’s the same information from a different perspective. Every parent will benefit from this perspective whatever your child’s quirks. And as a Christian, I love the idea that God made each kid to be different and that God loves most the very things we struggle with!

  • This stuff is so important. I have had classic social anxiety my whole life, but never even realized that was the case until this last year. My parents made me push through it, by threatening me with punishment, but it never went away. I should’ve been treated a long time ago.

  • Iblake

    h3llinhighh33ls you are telling my story. I swallowed so much anxiety, fear & overwhelm as a child it was hell on earth. Oh yes, I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home. My parents had no clue what was going on inside me. I didn’t either but determined that something was fundamentally wrong with me by the time I graduated high school.
    By the time I turned 40 I had burnt out my adrenals & the panic attacks around other people were severe. Elaine Aaron’s books helped me to see I wasn’t crazy, just unique. I now work with a team of professionals to heal the PTSD I live with.
    This post is a wake up call to all parents that label children as mischievous or “bad” for being themselves. It is time to stand up for the innocence & the rights of each child to be respected.

  • krwordgazer

    I just don’t understand why “do unto others” seems to get suspended when it comes to children. I’ve always used that principle in raising mine, and yes, since I want a right to be treated as a real human being with real emotions caused by real things, that’s how I’ve considered my kids. It’s worked fine.

  • 3 kids, especially one middle, sensitive one, taught me this the hard way. I learned that if I frowned at him, he’d cry, if I spoke loudly, he’d think it was yelling. He taught me to care for other people’s feelings… and how to recognize my own when I was denied them by every adult and spouse I had… This is a great entry. I learned too that I needed to adapt to him– enough warning about changes, enough sleep, and only one thing at a time… He made me a better person and now he’s a grown up 20 year old man who is the most kind, thoughtful, fun and amazing person I could have ever imagined. I think God training me to care through him helped him become who he was.

  • Kathy Boles

    I had so much anxiety as a child and then as an adult, I thought I would explode with it sometimes. Fortunately, I started doing some reading as a middle aged adult, and got myself some help. I was especially grateful when I recognized the very same problem going on with my granddaughter, and was able to suggest that she get tested. I could tell that she was miserable, and no one knew why. Thank God that I finally got the help I needed in time to suggest it for my granddaughter!! If I had gotten help at her age, my life would have been sooooooo different!!

  • cm

    If your upbringing was anything like mine (and it sounds like it was–have even had people link me this blog asking if it was written by me, haha), we were not only NOT taught how to cope with anxiety, how to set limits, how to know when to step back and and how to protect ourselves, or even to recognize what we needed, we were instead taught the opposite, that our obligation as Christians and especially as women, was to go against our intuition, to sacrifice ourselves, to suffer in silence, and to see that suffering as good and noble. That to take care of ourselves in a way that would prevent pain or suffering was somehow balking at the Will of God For Your Life(tm).

  • This subject makes me unutterably sad. My daughter will be3 this month, and I try hard to be assumed to her humanity. It kills (and engages) me when people react to her the eat your describing, or more commonly, judge me for not “handling” her as expected. I’m not a monster, and she’s not a pet to be housebroken. If I need to take a moment to help her calm herself when she’s overstimulated, the person I’m talking to can damn well wait 10 seconds for me to be a good mother, or they can bug off.

    • GOODNESS, typos!! #headdesk #onmyphone

      • Hence one of the many reasons why I’ll be switching to Disqus soon.

  • Malia Arch

    This is a very interesting post. As a kid that had Asperger’s, I really appreciate this. Most of the people I know ignore the fact that different people have different ways of sorting stimuli, and this includes children. As a kid I always would find cats and fish if a conversation didn’t directly concern me because they were my dark room. I’m sure that that is true of other kids, too, and that when that is ignored they act out. Unfortunate, really, that more adults don’t realize that.

  • From a woman who differed with bipolar disorder for 25 years (only the last 9 successfully) who is starting to see signs of it in my 11 year old, thank you from the bottom of my heart for this. I’m walking a tightrope between not wanting to project my problems on him and wanting to make sure he gets the help I didn’t if he needs it. Thank you for helping me realize that yes, his doctor is right, and I need to trust my instincts and get an outside opinion and some help with things. And that it’s OK for him to feel that way, and not a judgement on me.

  • Oh, my kindred spirit. Love the post.

  • Oh, my kindred spirit. Loved the post. I know the struggle.